A Shaker Heights dream: an author’s search for the truth behind her racially integrated city

For many, Shaker Heights' highly rated schools, its garden path streets, and tree-lined sidewalks are what charm its citizens and attract new residents. Small turreted houses with genuine cedar shake roofs sit just around the block from French chateaus and English tutors with mid-century ranch houses sprinkled throughout—creating almost a dream city.

But it’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech that Shaker Heights native and Washington Post journalist Laura Meckler alludes to in her new book “Dream Town: The Quest for Racial Equity in Shaker Heights.”

The book, which went on sale this week, details the history of Shaker’s decades-long attempt at racial integration and harmony.

The Reality

Long before federal law mandated it, Shaker made a concerted effort to racially integrate its neighborhood and schools and prides itself in its commitment to equity.

For many, Shaker is the place where childhood friends were of different races or religions. Shaker is also where those same people struggled to maintain those friendships as they grew into teenagers and adults, and where they, like Meckler, discovered first-hand that integration doesn’t necessarily mean equity.

As Meckler writes in the book’s introduction, “Shaker Heights—a suburb of about 29,000 people located just east of Cleveland and situated high above the city—had a decades-long, nationally recognized track record of racial integration, but also a persistent achievement gap in education.”

Laura Meckler - Dream TownLaura Meckler - Dream Town‘The Washington Post' article

“Dream Town” developed out a 2019 “The Washington Post” Meckler wrote about a racially charged meeting at Shaker Heights High School in the fall of 2018 over a reprimand given to AP English teacher, Jody Podl for bullying a Black student, Olivia McDowell.

It was a disturbing time for many in the community, Meckler wrote in the article, “If any place can navigate the complex issues of race in America, it’s Shaker Heights.”

Meckler found the disturbing and unanswered question was, 'If Shaker can’t do it, then who can?'

Meckler set out to find the truth. She says she doesn’t believe in journalism that has good guys and bad guys—she sees her craft as a mission to find a nuanced middle. “We have people, imperfect people making mistakes, doing good things and bad things,” she says.

“Even with its flaws, Shaker is still delivering a positive and important experience to kids who are both Black and white,” she continues. “And in that vein, it did, I guess you could say, confirm my initial instincts before I started all of this, that this was sort of a place that is special and is doing things that are important.”

It’s Personal

Meckler was born in the late 1960s and grew up in the integrated Shaker Sussex neighborhood. She had friends of all creeds, races, and backgrounds, and believed in the “post-racial” world she experienced first-hand.

Students at Ludlow Elementary School, including Winston Richie Jr., age 6, (next to the teacher) participate in a program on patriotism in 1962Students at Ludlow Elementary School, including Winston Richie Jr., age 6, (next to the teacher) participate in a program on patriotism in 1962“As a white child in a white family, I felt enormous pride that I was from Shaker Heights, imagining that I held a sort of superiority trump card in the category of race relations,” she writes in “Dream Town.”

Like many of her peers, Meckler didn’t realize that there were problems in the façade of integration until she went to high school and found herself in mostly white AP classes and saw how self-segregating the cafeteria was.

“Deam Town” begins at the Shaker Heights High School, with Meckler’s discussions about leveling and tracking with Shaker Heights High School teacher Hubert McIntyre, a beloved teacher at the school who, even though he retired almost a decade ago, continues to provide guidance to students.

Each successive chapter of the book advances the story chronologically through biographies— starting with the Van Sweringen brothers creating the exclusive city, and moving on to the first Black Shaker homeowners, who in the 1950s risked life and limb to stake a claim in the suburban dream, and the white families who not only welcomed their new black neighbors but became activists.


Meckler says she became fascinated by the research she uncovered about the Ludlow Community Association, which was created to keep the racial demography in Ludlow neighborhood balanced.

“[There were] really intense debates that went on within the Ludlow Community Association and within the city about the discriminatory nature of the housing program by overtly encouraging and recruiting white families,” she says. “Now that was what was needed to try to create and maintain racial balance, but that [actually] is a discriminatory policy.”

Meckler says she had been proud of Shaker’s housing office—before she started her research.

“The truth of the matter is that [the policy] really wasn’t doing that [keeping racial balance] for Black people moving into white Shaker neighborhoods.”

While some white leaders in the cause for integration and bussing often fell short, Meckler also writes about the positive efforts of white individuals like former Shaker High teachers Terrence Pollack and Jerry Graham, who both started teaching at Shaker in the mid-1960s, as well as the story of Zachary Green, the teacher who, in 1983  helped form the now popular Student Group on Race Relations (SGORR).

“I really loved telling the story of the founding of SGORR,” she says, adding that she was in Shaker at the time. “SGORR doesn’t solve all the problems of Shaker, but they are still at it 40 years later and they serve an important positive role in the community and have time and again.”

Shaker schools superintendent John H. Lawson in 1966Shaker schools superintendent John H. Lawson in 1966The Achievement Gap

Even though she was aware of the broad contours of the Shaker story going into her investigation, Meckler says there were a lot of surprises—especially about leveling and tracking.

Meckler found a 1969 academic paper by Alan Geismer, who she says “just presciently laid out the exact same problems that the schools have faced in very recent years about the racial implications of the tracking system.

“I felt really sad that this was something that they sort of knew about right from the beginning,” she says. “And it made me sad that it had not been dealt with more effectively over such a long period of time.”

As Meckler’s book moves onto Shaker’s recent history, it delves deeper into the issues of tracking and leveling and expands on her Washinton Post story about Jody Podl and Olivia McDowell.

“Dream Town” also sheds light on some of the more recent developments the school district has implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic to bridge the achievement gap—in particular, ending tracking and combining core and honors classes.

Former superintendent Gregory Hutchins, Jr., current superintendent David Glasner, as well as high school principal Eric Juli each have their own chapters in the book.

Meckler also writes about how Shaker recently started coming to terms with the economic divide between the races in Shaker.

“I think that overcoming racial differences is in many ways, certainly today, easier than overcoming economic divisions,” she explains. “And when they’re layered on top of each other, it’s even harder because in Shaker it isn’t just that there are economic divides, it’s that there are racialized economic divides.”

There’s Still Hope

Meckler says one of her favorite chapters is about long-term white resident Kathleen FitzSimmons, who purposely raised her children in Shaker so they could live in an integrated community. During COVID-19, as racial tensions rose across the country, FitzSimmons worried that she hadn’t done enough in the past to befriend her Black neighbor Janice Rushin, who died in 2017.

“It’s a little different than some of the other [chapters] in the sense that it doesn’t really advance the big Shaker narrative,” says Meckler. “But I felt it was an important chapter, and it resonated.”

Meckler says she knew the FitzSimmons/Rushin relationship was important enough that she talked to Rushin’s sons.

“Their perceptions were so different,” she explains. “And I just thought it was a really good indicator that even though Shaker does fall short at times…. It also serves kids well. And both of them [Rushin’s sons] had very good feelings about Shaker and about that neighborhood and about Kathleen.”

As Meckler writes near the end of her book, “Being part of a community that was intentionally working toward racial justice helped me develop an innate spark of optimism that this country can rise above its past. In this divided nation, that’s saying something.”

Yesterday, Tuesday, Aug. 22, Meckler began signing books and having talks in and around Shaker, She was at Loganberry Books with Mark Joseph, associate professor of Mandel School at Case and founding director of the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities; will be with journalism Susan Glaser at the Cuyahoga County Public Library Beahcwood Branch tonight, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m.; and will host an online discussion with Paul Mason,  journalist and son of Ludlow Community Association pioneers Beverly and Ted Mason, the first Black family to move into the Shaker school district, with Shaker Heights Public Library on Saturday, Aug. 26 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

About the Author: Katie McMenamin

Katie McMenamin has written across a range of platforms, from broadcast news and published novels to promotional brochures and back cover blurbs.